Finding your Retirement Passion
I just finished the third of a 3-part Retirement Workshop series that I’ve given to a group of Mandarin-speaking folks who are now living in Toronto. This session was called REINVENTING YOUR LIFE: LETTING GO AND BECOMING AGAIN. It’s been a really interesting experience because it has given me an opportunity to find out whether some of the pitfalls of retirement that I’ve experienced are just local issues or are issues shared by people from a different culture. Was I surprised at what I found out? Not so much.
We started our afternoon together by talking about some of the demographic changes that are being experienced around the world. In 1975, for example, there were 6 young people (family members) to support 1 elderly person in China. Today it’s more than a reverse; today there is only 1 young person to take care of every 2 elderly people in China. By 2030 China will be an “older” country than Canada. That’s especially interesting since the number of people aged 65 and older doubled, in Canada, between 1981 and 2009. That’s expected to double again in the next few years, and by sometime between 2015 and 2031 there will be more seniors in Canada than young people. I don’t have the demographic statistics for the U.S. but I’m guessing – since both countries experienced the baby boom in the post WWII era – that the same will be true south of our border. Now when you put that together with the economy we’re struggling with everywhere these days that gets even more worrisome. Indeed, Canada is currently putting legislation in place to raise the retirement age from 65 to 67. Along with that there are a range of cuts to programs, supports and services for those over 65 (or 67); reduced government pension payments among them.
That’s the demographic and economic picture.
Still, the key issue for the folks I’ve been working with has focused on the same things that I’ve been struggling with; loneliness, meaningfulness, and loss of community/family. Yup, these folks are lonely too. They told me that it is sometimes just easier – given our declining levels of energy – to just sit at home alone than it is to go out and find meaningful activity. So often I hear people comment that I seem even busier now that I’ve retired than I did when I worked full-time. Busy, however, isn’t the issue. The challenge isn’t in finding things to fill the day alone; it’s far more about finding something that still feels meaningful, that still gives you a sense of importance to your community and a sense of still contributing to the community.
We did an interesting exercise this afternoon that I’d like to share with you. We began with something from Lao Tzu: When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. Let me tell you a little story. I have a friend who has been a nurse her whole life. It was a career she chose and one that she mostly enjoyed. She retired a couple of years ago and, as is true for so many of us, life has taken many unexpected turns since she retired. She finds herself once again wanting to work – at least part time. Initially she looked for part-time work in her field of nursing. When she told me about her job search it was clear to me that when she talked about the jobs she was applying for I didn’t see any signs of excitement or enthusiasm. Now I’ve known her for a long time, and one of the things that she’s been interested in over the years was the whole area of TV and film production. Indeed, her son was once a child-actor and I’m guessing this was at least partly because of her own interesting in being in that milieu. And so I challenged her. ”What do you most like to be doing?”, I asked, “Where would you most like to be spending your working time?” Her answer was speedy – she’d like to be a movie star. Okay, not too realistic to start that kind of new career at our age. Still, I encouraged her to start thinking about any part-time work she might be able to get in the TV or film world. She gave it some thought. She found an agent. Now she’s spending a couple of days each week working as an extra in films. The hours are very long. The pay isn’t great. But she is working and making some money doing what she really wants to be doing … and loving every minute of it.
So here’s the exercise. I started by having everyone think about the work they’d done through their full employment years. I had people leave their tables and gather together under one of four signs that I’d posted, choosing the one that most “fit” with what they’d earned a living doing before retirement. The first said “Children” and that was for anyone who’d worked in a field connected to children – teachers, choir leaders, day-care staff. The second sign said “Elderly/Hospitals” and that’s where folks gathered who’d worked as nurses, doctors, pharmacists, support staff in geriatric facilities and so on. The third sign said “Public Sector” and that was for folks who’d worked in government, in social services agencies, the Red Cross etc. The fourth sign said “Skills-Based”. Now I’m not insinuating that those who worked in the first three areas don’t have skills. This sign was to gather those whose work was truly about what they could “do” – computer designers, accountants, gardeners, electricians, actors and the like. Once they had positioned themselves in the right corner of the room I asked them to answer 3 questions: (1) Why did you choose to do this kind of work? (2) What did you like most about it? (3) What did you dislike about it?
After they’d had a chance to talk and answer those questions I asked them all to close their eyes and dream a little. To dream about what they’d really most like to imagine themselves doing now. To me that’s the true gift of retirement, the ability to organize your life so that you’re doing things that truly make you happy and excited. I gave them a few minutes to dream – and I encourage you to do the same before you continue reading. Once they’d had time to see themselves in their dream world I asked them to once again cluster under one of the four signs in the room … but this time to choose the area they’d most like to be in now that they’re a little older. In those groups they’d address 3 different questions: (1) What is your fantasy work? (2) What has kept you from being able to do it until now? (3) Can you think of ways to do it now?
Here’s what happened. Nobody went to the “Children” group. Although there were a number of people in the room none of them wanted to continue in that area; maybe that’s because of the amount of energy it takes to work with children or maybe it’s because they – like me – ended up in a field that was practical but not really their first choice. The biggest cluster of people were under the “Skills-Based” sign. Those who had taught music in schools as a career wanted to be musicians. One man who’d been a doctor wanted to be an actor. Not one single person returned to the area they’d worked in.
And that’s where the magic lies. We naturally tend to go back to being who we’ve always been; it’s the most comfortable and easiest thing to do. The participants in my workshop today left with a whole new set of ideas for what they could do … and the final part of the workshop was my sharing with them quite a number of websites I’d found that would help them find those dream “jobs”.
This was as much about learning, letting go, and changing for me as it was for them. I continue to look for new ways of giving my time – not necessarily making much money at all – doing the things that I’ve always wanted to devote more time to but just couldn’t afford. This was how I’d imagined my retirement. FOR THE FIRST TIME in my life I’d be able to do what I really most wanted to be doing. Now lots of things have come up to throw me off track – a soon-to-be ex-husband who seems to be bent on forcing me back into full-time employment, dramatic changes in the economy over all, and the truth of the impact of aging on my body, mind and spirit. But never mind all of that; I’m not going to give up this precious gift that I worked for so many many years. I’m spending a lot of time writing. One day soon I hope to have the energy/spirit to spend more time planning more workshops and more ways to share what I’ve learned with others. I’m volunteering in a research study on aging and memory. I’m doing volunteer work with the homeless … a sadly ever-growing cohort in Canada as it is in many places. I’m spending more time supporting friends and family in their own struggles with them. I’m focused on being the kind of person – and doing the kinds of things – that have always been so important to me.
I wish that for all of you too … this great opportunity to live our dreams.
Harriet Tubman said it this way: Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.
The Eagles said it this way in their 1974 song Already Gone: So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains and we never even know we have the key.
Mark Twain had this advice: “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”
So I leave you with this. Dream your dream. Find the key to loosen your chains. Stay away from people who make you feel small … and dare to become great.